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Punching Out

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned last Monday that I had just finished Robert Crais’ crime novel The Sentry and that I was expecting the next morning to get Paul Clemens’ new book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant on my Kindle the next morning. It is, as I noted, a sequel to Clemens’ superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, which I had read, and written about, just over a year and a half ago.

The new book arrived Tuesday as scheduled, and I finished reading it last night. It did not have the emotional intensity of Clemens’ memoir, which so beautifully evokes life in a working class family in Detroit, with an especially powerful portrait of his father. And, as Dwight Garner noted in his review of the book in Wednesday’s NYT, the title is misleading, since the book is about not the final year of the plant’s operation but the dismantling of the plant in the year following its closing. Nonetheless, Clemens once again writes with passion about the loss of the manufacturing working class in this country.

The plant in question is the Budd Company’s Detroit plant, which was bought in the 1970s by the German giant Krupp, which in turn merged with Thyssen, so that when the plant closed, it was owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd. As soon as I read that, just a few pages in, I realized I knew the plant. I have written about our Detroit sojourns elsewhere. I’ll be brief here.

In June 1999, we made a short trip to Detroit on the way to New York in order to see the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium before it closed. We did much more, including visiting the great building that once was GM headquarters, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Greenfield Village.

Our first outing, though, after arriving at our hotel and eating dinner, was a drive eastward on Jefferson Avenue, paralleling the river, to get a taste of the area. This was just past the middle of June, the sun set late that far west in the time zone, and so we had lots of light for a long, leisurely drive. And what a drive it was! The surroundings got worse and worse as we headed east. And suddenly there was this immense industrial plant that I couldn’t identify, seemingly filling our view to the north. And just as suddenly, few blocks further east, we were in a different universe, having left Detroit behind for the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs.

Two years ago, when Gail and I were back in Detroit, we took a similar drive, returning from the Grosse Pointes, on Mack, which parallels Jefferson to the north and forms the northern border of the plant. This time I saw the ThyssenKrupp sign. I didn’t know it, but the dismantling described by the book was then nearing its end. All I knew was that it looked like an industrial wasteland. In some small way, this allowed me to imagine I was there as I read Clemens’ account.

Here’s one representative passage from the book, taken from Clemens’ description of a conversation he had with Duane, an electrical foreman brought in to dismantle machinery that would be shipped to Mexico and rebuilt.

There was reverence in his voice. . . . Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea — an error that wasn’t mistaken — that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something” — the disassembly work — “that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

Unions, protectionism versus free trade, the move of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, Brazil, and beyond — these issues and more hover in the background as one reads Clemens’ meditation on the decline of an industry, a city, and a nation’s working class.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Economy

Sentence of the Week

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

On turning to the Seattle Times’ sports section Wednesday morning, I saw a piece about Seattle Mariner outfielder Milton Bradley that opened with the following astonishing sentence:

A former major-league general manager said Tuesday night there would have to be specific language in Milton Bradley’s contract for his arrest on suspicion of making a felony threat to alter his deal.

Have you read it? Can you make sense of it? Do you have the impression that Bradley was arrested for threatening to alter his deal, and that such a threat is apparently felonious? Is there any other way to interpret this sentence without additional information?

On reading further into the article, I was eventually able to figure out what the writer, Geoff Baker, was trying to convey. Here are the issues:

1. Bradley allegedly made a criminal threat the day before against a woman and was arrested.

2. The Mariners owe Bradley $12 million for the coming season.

3. The Mariners wouldn’t comment on the situation, following club policy.

4. Baker, in need of some further insight about how the team might handle Bradley’s contract, contacted a former GM, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

5. The issue arose in their conversation of whether the Mariners would be able to forgo paying Bradley salary that was guaranteed under his contract: “The former GM . . . said the language needed to convert contracts from ‘guaranteed’ to ‘non-guaranteed’ is very specific. ‘It depends on the guarantee language,’ he said. ‘If the guarantee language includes a felony conviction, it allows the contract to be converted to a non-guaranteed form if that player is convicted of a felony.'”

It’s now possible to return to the opening sentence and see that Baker was, perhaps prematurely, explaining that Bradley’s deal with the Mariners might be alterable in light of the alleged felony, if language in the contract addressed such a scenario. Of course, the location within the sentence of the phrase “to alter his deal” is awkward at best, but one can parse it once one has enough information. The sentence needs re-writing, but more, it needs re-locating within the article. Even the fact that it opens with mention of a former GM is utterly mysterious until later.

I am relieved, in any case, to know that threatening to alter one’s contract is not a felony.

Categories: Baseball, Journalism, Language

Civility and Honesty, II

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Last Monday, in a late response on my part to Obama’s speech in Tucson (not that anyone was waiting for my response), I wrote:

I don’t wish to violate [its] spirit, which is perhaps one reason I have been mute for the past week. We’re all being told we need to be civil. Okay, I’m being civil.

But listen, being civil doesn’t mean being quiet. Being civil doesn’t mean you can’t point out errors, lies, and falsehoods. . . .

Sure, let’s be civil. But let’s be honest too.

I discovered yesterday that Rick Perlstein was my ahead of me in making this very point, and making it better. Last November, just after the election, he wrote in The Daily Beast:

We live in a mendocracy.

As in: rule by liars.

Political scientists are going crazy crunching the numbers to uncover the skeleton key to understanding the Republican victory last Tuesday.

But the only number that matters is the one demonstrating that by a two-to-one margin likely voters thought their taxes had gone up, when, for almost all of them, they had actually gone down. Republican politicians, and conservative commentators, told them Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic. They lied. The mainstream media did not do their job and correct them. The White House was too polite—”civil,” just like Obama promised—to say much. So people believed the lie. From this all else follows.

And it was all too predictable.

[snip]

When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes “uncivil” to call out liars, lying becomes free.

So you find him at a press conference, the day after the midterm elections, saying with all apparent sincerity that he agreed the majority of Americans participated in a “fundamental rejection of his agenda”—who, that is, implicitly believe he raised their taxes.

When he really lowered them.

[Hat tip: tomtomorrow, who tweeted yesterday about a blog post by digby that in turn quoted Perlstein, and who a couple of minutes later tweeted the Perlstein quote that I have italicized above.]

Categories: Politics